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What we know about the federal government’s ongoing nuclear waste plans in New Mexico

Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus

Southeast New Mexico is home to the nation’s only repository for nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant about 30 miles east of Carlsbad.

At WIPP, transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste from across the country is trucked in and buried in a salt deposit about 2,000 feet underground.

The waste comes from national laboratories and other facilities owned by the U.S. Department of Energy and WIPP is managed by the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management to clean up waste left at generator sites and new waste produced through the agency’s ongoing nuclear activities.

Here are the key takeaways from the federal government’s recent accomplishments and plans for WIPP future.

Air system at WIPP hoped to finish construction

Two projects were underway at WIPP intended to rebuild its underground ventilation system and improve airflows for workers in the underground.

After an accidental radiological release in 2014 air was restricted at the site, limiting personnel in the underground, and slowing progress in emplacing waste for disposal and mining new areas of the facility.

The Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) project along with a new utility shaft to act as an air intake were expected to increase available air at WIPP from 170,000 cubic feet per minute (cfm) to 540,000 cfm.

In 2023, the DOE said it hoped the primary construction of the SSCVS – a series of building and filters that will clean the air at WIPP before exhausting it at the surface- would be finished in 2023

In 2022, the DOE reported it partially completed constructing the SSCVS’ new filter building.

WIPP’s utility shaft finished this year

Meanwhile, the DOE planned to finish sinking the utility shaft to its planned depth of 2,150 feet underground.

The agency also reported it was 50 percent complete in mining a west access drift for the new shaft as of 2022.

Goal set for 400 shipments of nuclear waste to WIPP in 2023

The DOE said it hoped to send about 400 shipments of TRU waste to WIPP from its generator sites in 2023.

This would be the most shipped to WIPP since the 2014 incident, and subsequent three-year shutdown of WIPP’s underground operations.

Included in this listed priority was also ensuring no backlog of waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico, in response to pressure from the State of New Mexico that instate facilities be prioritized by the DOE for cleanup.

The DOE estimated it was taking in about two shipments a week from Los Alamos, contending they were sent to WIPP as soon as the drums were ready for transport.

Since opening in 1999, WIPP accepted 1,608 shipments from LANL, about 12 percent of WIPP’s total of 13,460 shipments, according to DOE records.

The DOE completed its 2022 goal, read the report, of 30 LANL shipments.

Where else does WIPP get its waste from?

Other major shippers include Idaho National Laboratory – WIPP’s biggest shipper – with 6,880 shipments sent to the repository opened, about 51 percent of WIPP’s total.

The second-biggest active shipper was the Savannah River site in South Carolina, which sent 1,714 shipments in total during WIPP’s lifetime, records show.

The decommissioned Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site near Denver was the second-biggest overall shipper to WIPP with 2,045 shipments of nuclear waste to the repository.

Nuclear waste retrieved from Texas site could go to WIPP

Buoying the DOE’s priorities at LANL was a goal for this year to retrieve drums of Los Alamos waste from the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) facility in Andrews, Texas and likely prepare them for disposal at WIPP.

The DOE reported after last year it “partially completed” a goal to install equipment needed for this work.

The DOE was originally slated, via an agreement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), to remove the 74 waste boxes from LANL stored at WCS in 2014 temporarily amid WIPP’s closure as it resumed operations in 2017.

The TCEQ “extended the deadline multiple times” for the waste’s removal from WCS, read a May 2022 letter from the agency to the DOE, or the State of Texas would take “additional enforcement actions.”

Adrian Heddencan be reached at 575-628-5516, or@AdrianHedden on Twitter.


May 25, 2023 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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